Tuesday, August 6, 2013

FADED COLONIAL LIFE OF VIENTIANE

Presidential Palace of Laos in downtown Vientiane

I stand at the gate of the Presidential Palace. A grand, classic French dominion painted grey and white, this is one of the few colonial buildings in Vientiane that is well preserved. Appearing as though it was transported directly from the French countryside, the colonial governor used to reside in this mansion of stone.

What may be the largest Laotian flag in the whole country, flies from a flagpole out front. Curiously, the Laotian flag is not your usual communist flag. Blue and red with a large white circle, it more closely resembles the flag of Thailand.

From what I can see there is little activity inside. In fact, looking around I don’t see a single soul. There’s not even a security guard around. I’d love a tour, but the palace isn’t open to the public. Sadly, the grand edifice is only used for occasional government functions and ceremonies, so I depart down the street to further acquaint myself with Vientiane.

One of the quietest capitals in all of Asia, Vientiane has a sleepy feel to it, as though it is still waking up after a
Buddhist monks pass a deteriorating old French colonial house
decades long nap. With a population of less than a quarter million, it’s far less crowded than Hanoi, or Bangkok to the west.

“I like Laos more than Thailand,” I heard from Tony, a retired English soldier who works on mobile phone towers in Laos. “It’s quieter here. Life is better.” For most of the small expat community that lives here, the slower pace of life here is their preference.

As I walk around Vientiane, a capital void of skyscrapers, it resembles a town, not a big city. There isn’t much garbage lying in the streets either. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, the crime rate here is fairly low, and violence is rare. When there is a murder once in a blue moon, it’s usually connected to drug trafficking.

A pair of monks pass me by in their bright orange robes, a common sight in the downtown. Buddhism in Laos is even stronger here than it is in Vietnam, and there are many Buddhist monasteries in this part of town. A few blocks on, I reach a legacy of the French; old
Dilapidated French colonial house; few are well preserved
mansions with French architecture. Vientiane is actually a French word, their own pronunciation of the Lao name for the city, “Vieng Chan”, which means “city of sandalwood”.

Passing once luxurious homes, the glory years of these deteriorating buildings are long gone. French colonists who inhabited them left in 1953 when Laos regained its independence. These high ceiling mansions were once the envy of Laos, homes to French officials living the quiet life. Vientiane was a  backwater in those days, as Laos was one of the most isolated, least desired outposts in the French empire. For today’s foreign diplomatic corps, not much has changed.

Some of the original French colonial structures I’m passing are now government buildings, and they obviously need of a coat of paint. Although some chateaus have been fairly well preserved, most are not, and look dilapidated. I pass one with an exterior wall so deteriorated, that large sections of plaster have fallen away, exposing bare brick underneath.

Unoccupied riverfront home is overgrown with weeds

When the French left these homes, they were replaced by the Laotian elite, but by the late 1970’s the upper class had gone as well. Members of the ruling elite were either sent to prison, or had fled the country due to the rise of the Pathet Lao. Most houses were taken over by the communists and their families. As the economy took a dive in the late 70’s and 80’s nobody had the money to repair these once opulent homes, so these beautiful old buildings simply fell apart. The destruction of Vientiane’s beautiful old colonial buildings didn’t happen from the war, it was caused by age and a lack of maintenance. Passing more old mansions and chateaus with closed French shutters, I find a group fenced off. These are completely unoccupied, with grass and weeds growing out of control. I wonder if these are in line for renovation, but its more likely that they will be torn down to make way for new construction. It’s sad but true, that much of Vientiane’s rich heritage is falling to the wrecking ball.

Unlike Hanoi or Saigon, Vientiane’s old colonial buildings didn’t face much destruction due to the war years, except for one battle after a 1960 coup. As different factions took sides in the cold war, forces led by an army centrist,Colonel Kong Le, seized power to keep Laos neutral. When soldiers loyal

Old USSR built building is nearly vacant
to the previous government moved to retake Vientiane, fighting left 600 people dead, and some areas of the city were in ruins. That would be the last major battle in Vientiane, until the present day.

As I walk through Vientiane’s neighborhoods, there are few reminders of those decades past. I do see a couple of US military style jeeps driving around town, but they aren’t original. These olive green copies weren’t built in the US, they’re counterfeits!


There are some folks here learning English, but it’s not as widely spoken as in Vietnam. I saw one Laotian woman walking down the street wearing a tee shirt that said, “Just two women away from a threesome.” Obviously she didn’t know what that meant.

Traffic in Vientiane is a welcome change from other capitals of Southeast Asia. It’s light, rarely crowded, even for rush hour. Most Laotians in town travel on motorbikes, or crowd into a bus or truck. Annoying tourist buses are few. Very common are tuk-tuks; open air vehicles that look half motorbike, half golf cart. 


Along with the slow pace of traffic in the city, commerce here is relatively quiet. There are many cafés, restaurants and hotels downtown, but advertising is muted. Vientiane is the economic center of Laos, but big business is not very visible. There is no rising skyline, and few large billboards. The advertising I see most often, is for the most popular drink: Beer Lao.

For a one party communist government, I’m surprised at the small number of government billboards in town. I suppose that when the government returned to capitalism, they decided hard line communist propaganda wasn’t the way to go anymore. Their public presence is low
Old communist flag, hanging near a Buddhist shrine??!!
key, even the police are less visible. Still, everyone knows the communist party are the real people in charge in Laos. 

Passing through Nam Phu, a downtown fountain plaza, I look up at a gloomy, brown and white building that looks like something out of hard times Russia. One of the larger buildings in the downtown, this boxy structure looks totally out of place, mostly abandoned. An Aussie expat told me that this seven story monstrosity was built with aid from the former Soviet Union. 

“It used to have a communist logo sticking out from the roof,” said Robin, a restaurant owner, “but that’s gone now.” Office buildings built during the Soviet era were never really known for their quality, or their aesthetic value.

Away from the government ministries, there are few visible reminders of the lean days of communism, but I spot one as I head towards the river. Walking by a row house, I see a red flag marked with the hammer and sickle hanging over a balcony railing above. Also on the same balcony, is a small Buddhist shrine. I suppose the resident here felt the need to pay homage to both. Such contradictory symbols, but that’s how Vientiane’s residents survive.

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